I will first discuss what I believe is of merit when it comes to the book, and then elaborate on its great shortcomings. As a whole the book gives a decent overview account of Western history beginning with Socrates and ending with the financial crisis. The book does an excellent job of condensing hundreds of years of history into a digestible narrative that is well researched, fun, and easy to read.
The author’s bias is obvious at times, though by the end, he does a good job of demonstrating the fallacies around being too “Platonic” or too “Aristotelian.” The final chapter does a good job of showing how hyper rationalizing and a supreme faith in reason and logic can lead to its own kind of barbarism, though it would have been better if such a balanced critique suffused the entire work.
In any case, the narrative remains entirely too reductionist. It is unfair and intellectually irresponsible to portray many of the West’s greatest thinkers with a couple pages and a few quotes as if such attention given represents the final word on the thinker and their thought. It’s as if one were to ask me what the ocean is, and I replied “It’s a large body of water that has large creatures in it that sometimes attack people.” Obviously my answer is correct, but it’s far from the whole picture, and it gives a limited position that dissuades people from exploring the entirety of the subject.
It would be one thing if the author pointed this out from the beginning, i.e. that his work is meant to show how all of Western thought is somehow influenced by Plato and Aristotle, but is by no means the last word on any of these thinkers, and that much of the thought introduced here is more vast and more complex than this book may suggest. The author does not do this, which means that he is quite convinced that what he has given the reader is all the reader needs to know. There is no encouragement to go and think for one’s self by exploring these thinkers on one’s own.
Likewise, the author is often only too eager to nitpick certain quotes in order to quickly sum up a thinker and assign him to one of two camps. Ironically, it is this kind of rigid mentality that spawns the kind of dangerous irrationality the author warns about and falsely implies is the great legacy of such thinkers as Heraclitus, Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. A few other points in regard to the portrayal of certain thinkers:
The reference to Wittgenstein as someone who summed up the logical positivist position, swept away the thought of Hegel and other idealists, and was ultimately a rationalist empiricist is not entirely true. He rejected the logical positivists and made the statement, “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence,” not to demonstrate that there is nothing if one can’t speak of it, but that one can’t speak of it because it goes beyond reason and logical proof. Wittgenstein believed in God, was obsessed with Tolstoy’s “Gospels,” and even relished the chance to fight in World War l; as a professor, he even chastised many of his students for not serving while the Second World War was taking place. That makes him much more of a “romantic” than may be realized.
The quote by Nietzsche that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not the full context. In actuality if one reads the rest of the passage it very much becomes an indictment on those who would mindlessly rush into war and soldier on without hesitation. Many have pointed out that Nietzsche’s nihilism is the beginning and not the end of a person’s thought. What Nietzsche is concerned with is dismantling inauthenticity and dishonest living that gropes at certain beliefs without being honest about who one really is and what one really wants, the true origin of all ignorance and fundamentalism.
And Heidegger. How could Heidegger simply be the offspring of Plato or Aristotle when the question that consumed his whole life, the question of what it means to be, was a question he respectfully chastised Plato and Aristotle for ignoring? Surely Heidegger deserves respect and is worth reading just for his attempt to critique and solve that question in and of itself, even if politically he was a supporter of the Nazis.
As a further aside, it is interesting to notice no mention of Freud or existentialism, probably because they do not fit easily into the author’s paradigm. Freud dismantled humanity’s supreme faith in reason while trying to ultimately embrace it. Existentialism falls arguably outside of either Plato or Aristotle, focusing on how an individual must face the realities of existence. It is within the realm of existentialism that Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky should be placed, if anywhere else, not as extensions of Plato.
Read the book as an introductory text to Western civilization and Western thought, but do not let it be the first and last word on many of the thinkers discussed.